Over the last several months the news has been filled with talk about a recession. The Stock Market is going up and down like a roller coaster. Layoffs are taking away jobs, foreclosures are taking homes, bankruptcies are skyrocketing, and many people talk about another Great Depression. There are a lot of people very concerned about the future. How should a Christian respond in times like these? I believe James 5 gives us some warnings.
What Not to Do
Don’t Panic (Hoarding)
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.
James is either speaking words of comfort to those in the church that are being exploited by wealthy landowners, or he is talking to those in the church who have riches. It seems most likely to me that he is speaking to both groups.
In James’ day the three assets that indicated affluence were: the produce you had, the clothes you owned, or the gold and silver you possessed. (This would be the equivalent today to the home you own, the car you drive, or your Net Worth). The people were treasuring or piling up these things because they believed that this made them rich and provided them security. The irony, said James, was that what they were really doing was amassing the wrath of God!
James said there is coming a day when the crops will have rotted, the clothes will be eaten by moths, and the gold and silver will be rusted through. In other words, all these so-called signs of affluence would eventually be worthless. The fact hey had squandered what they had would make them accountable before God. Jesus made a similar declaration.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
Think about our society. One of the popular new businesses today is storage facilities. These are places where people can store all the stuff they don’t have room for in their homes! We have become obsessed with stuff! Why do we keep buying more and more? It’s because we too feel that these earthly things make us significant in the world. James says it only makes us foolish in the eyes of God.
Please understand, God does not hate rich people. Riches in and of themselves are neither good or bad. The person who should mourn is the one who puts their hope in riches. If our attitude is all wrapped up in how the stock market is doing, or how much we have in the bank, or how secure our retirement appears to be, we are guilty of anchoring our security to what we have, rather than putting our trust in God.
A person cannot hoard and be generous at the same time. You cannot invest in the things of God if your concern is only to build yourself a secure financial fortress. When we hoard, money no longer serves as a tool to advance God’s Kingdom, it becomes a master that enslaves us. Solomon was right,
Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
Don’t Take Advantage of Others (Fraud) (v.4)
The second problem can come naturally from the first:
4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
Because of their desire to gather much, these land-owners were not paying their workers. Perhaps it wasn’t that they never paid them; they were not paying them on time. The problem is that these workers are like many of us: they live literally paycheck to paycheck. The daily wage was what put food on the table! If these people didn’t get paid, they didn’t eat!
This was harvest time. The barns were full and the wine was abundant! It wasn’t that the owner didn’t have the funds to pay them; the workers were not paid because of the greed of the owner. Today we see this in those who,
- Change agreed upon materials in a project to make a bigger profit
- Do not pay a Contractor for services rendered (The contractor is out the money)
- Promote financial scams that take advantage of the poor
- Who manipulate the system to get government handouts they don’t need or deserve
All throughout the Bible it is clear that God defends the cause of the poor, the weak, and the victimized. Those who cheat others will face judgment.
Don’t be Selfish (Self-indulgence)(v.5)
5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter
These people were simply pampering themselves. They surrounded themselves with things they didn’t need. These people were, if you will, spending all their time partying while others went hungry and couldn’t provide basic needs for their families. The Book of Haggai is written as a rebuke to the people of Israel because they were living in luxury while the temple lay in disrepair! They were pampering themselves while the work of God suffered. When we are self-indulgent nothing else matters other than having a good time.
James wants us to see that there are so many better ways to use the riches we are given. This should cause us to question
- How big of a home is too big?
- How nice of a car is too nice?
- How large of a stock portfolio is too big?
- When does the cost of a vacation become too extravagant?
- When does the price of a meal become obscene?
- How many trinkets and toys should we have?
The Life Application Bible Commentary lists some indicators of self-indulgence in our lives. We are probably guilty of self-indulgence,
- When we assume wealth should always be used first to meet our needs
- When we visualize wealth as a protection or insulation between us and the rest of the world
- When we waste, destroy, or discard what others could put to good use.
- When we become smug at what we have and others do not
- When we invest in things purely for status rather than usefulness
There is a fine line between “needs” and “greeds”; between what is necessary and what is indulgent. Every time we indulge ourselves we are making it impossible to do something else (for others or for God’s Kingdom).
Don’t Hurt Others (Injustice) (v.6)
You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
It appears the rich were gaining money by illegal means and then they were using some of that money to pervert justice at the expense of the poor. Today we might see this in politicians who advance spending packages that line their pockets instead of helping those who need help. We see it in frivolous lawsuits that force people to pay legal fees they can’t afford to defend themselves from things they did not do.
When we fail to help others when we are able to help them, we are, in all practicality, condemning innocent people. When we take someone’s livelihood from them simply because “we have the power to do so” we are condemning innocent men.
The story is told of a member of the Missouri legislature who accepted $25,000 for his vote in regard to a certain bill. Later he received $50,000 from the other side, and returned the first $25,000. When the man, who had turned state’s evidence, related the story on the stand, the examining attorney asked him, “Why was it that you returned the $25,000?” The legislator drew himself up to his full height, and in a voice that showed his scorn of the lawyer for such a question, answered: “I’d have you to know that I’m too conscientious to take money from both sides!””
James tells us we should not panic, we should not take advantage of others, we should not become selfish, and we should not do (or not do) anything that will hurt others. Let’s turn to Paul to see what we some positive principles for what we SHOULD do in times of financial uncertainty..
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. (1 Tim. 6:17–19)
Notice the positive principles. First, we should trust the Lord rather than riches. In uncertain economic times it is so important that we remind ourselves over and over that our security is not found in what we have, it is in the One to whom we belong. Instead of watching the stock market and listening to prognosticators we would be better served to look at the Lord and listen to His Word. He is the One in whom we find strength. He has promised to meet our needs.
Second, we should see our resources as a tool to use rather than as a trophy to display. Do you remember the parable of the talents? The Master gave his servants various amounts of money. He told them to take the money and invest it for His benefit. God gives us our resources for us to use for His benefit. When Christians talk about stewardship we often think of tithing to the church. Stewardship is much more than tithing, it is seeing all that we have as given to as by God as a tool to accomplish His purpose. We need to constantly ask ourselves, “How can I use what I have to honor and serve the Lord?”
Third, building on the last principle, our focus should be on eternal dividends rather than financial dividends. Paul told us to “store up for ourselves a treasure of a good foundation for the future.” We must understand the temporary nature of “stuff”. Rather than focus on securing what is temporary, we should seek to secure that which is eternal.
A businessman had an angel come to visit him who promised to grant him one request. The man requested a copy of the stock-market quotes for one year in the future. As he was studying the future prices on the American and New York stock exchanges, he boasted of his plans and the increased riches that would be his as a result of this “insider” look into the future.
He then glanced across the newspaper page, only to see his own picture in the obituary column. Obviously, in the light of his certain death, money was no longer important.
Financial investors tell you to think in terms of long term investments. In other words you should continue to invest in the stock market in the good times and the bad and in the end, you will get a good return for your money. The Bible encourages us to invest for the long term also – it suggests we look beyond the few years of this earthly life and seek to invest what we have in that which will bear eternal dividends. How do we do this?
- You can invest in a work of the church that it may more effectively proclaim the gospel. God may have blessed you so that you can make one of our bigger projects a reality.
- You can invest in missions so the gospel can be taken to other lands
- You can invest in other ministries that meet the needs of others in a way that glorifies Christ
- You can give directly to meet the needs of someone else in the name Christ
- You can begin some work that will allow you to reach out to others.
The only Treasures we take with us when we die are our acts of service to the Lord and those friends and neighbors who we have introduced to Christ. When we invest in these things, our dividends will be eternal.
Fourth, we should long for contentment rather than stuff. Earlier in 1 Timothy 6, Paul wrote,
6 godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau said in his book, Walden: “It is desirable that a man….live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed and without anxiety. In another place Thoreau wrote, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
This is desperately hard in our day. We want to drive the brand new car with all the latest gadgets. We want the bigger television. We want the cool video games. We want the early retirement. We want the bigger home, the designer clothes, the gourmet food, the best equipment for our amusements, and we want our kids to have all the advantages (is it really an advantage to never have to work for anything?) The problem with all of these things is that there will always be something newer and better out there. For a few moments after we secure what we have desired, we will feel significant . . . but before long we will again feel “deprived” and need “one more thing” to be happy.
Someone has appropriately written
Money will buy:
A bed, but not sleep.
Books, but not brains.
Food, but not appetite.
A house, but not a home.
Medicine, but not health.
Amusement, but not happiness.
Finery, but not beauty.
A crucifix, but not a Savior.
Contentment realizes that happiness is not found in the things we possess, but in the God we serve.
Contentment is found when we gratefully receive what God has given without having to compare what we have with others around us.
Contentment comes from the sweet knowledge that you are the forgiven child of the King, destined for an eternity in Heaven.
Contentment and enjoyment come from realizing that blessing comes from the people in our lives rather than the possessions in our lives
Challenging financial times can make us anxious or they can challenge us to simplify our lives and sharpen our focus. Our challenge is to resist the urge to panic. We must find our security in Christ rather than in the things of the world. We must learn to live on less and joyfully appreciate and give thanks for what we have been given.
Our challenge is to live the life of stewardship. We must see everything we have as given by God for the purpose of bringing honor and glory to His name. If God should prosper us, we should use what He has given to do great things for God. If He does not prosper us we should seek to trust Him to provide what we need and resist the tendency to live beyond our means.
This won’t be easy. It’s not the American way as we know it today. It is however, God’s way. It is the way to find security and joy even if the rest of the world chooses to panic.